Should cruise ship have set sail in light of storm warnings off NC coast?

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Maureen Peters thought she would never see her family again. For hours on Sunday night, the Royal Caribbean cruise passenger clung to her mattress to avoid falling off her bed as huge waves tossed around the massive ship, the Anthem of the Seas.

The cruise ship got caught in a violent storm -- a storm that was predicted.

"That boat should have never gone out," said Peters, who lives in Southampton, Massachusetts. She was angry and tired but glad to be back on land Wednesday after the ship made an emergency rerouting back to the United States, forgoing its intended destination in the Bahamas.

So is Peters right? Should the Anthem of the Seas have set sail with some 1,500 crew and 6,000 passengers, four of whom returned home with minor injuries rather than the tans they were probably dreaming about?

Who's responsible?

It's always the discretion of the captain, and the captain only, as to whether the ship leaves port, said Bill Baumgartner, the senior vice president of Global Marine Operations, Royal Caribbean Cruises Limited.

"He's responsible for the ultimate safety," he said.

The company hasn't released the name of the captain.

Normally, a captain will weigh the opinions of a "fleet of captains ashore" who review the situation and make recommendations on the safest route to take, Baumgartner added.

What did the captain know about the forecast before leaving port?

Royal Caribbean captains receive and review multiple forecasts, some sophisticated enough to project where the ship will be as the storm develops, Baumgartner explained. In this case, the captain of the Anthem of the Seas, who has worked for Royal Caribbean for more than 15 years, initially spotted a storm with winds forecast to be 55 to 65 knots, or about 63 mph to 74 mph.

As early as last Thursday, the National Weather Service's ocean prediction center in Washington forecast winds of 46 to 57 mph and 23- to 31-foot seas on Sunday night where she ship sailed.

But it was far worse than the forecast predicted. "We simply didn't anticipate that it could be 125 mile per hour winds," Baumgartner said.

Those conditions meant a hellish time on the ship.

For roughly 12 hours, passengers hunkered down in their rooms Sunday as waves rocked the ship off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. They endured four hours with the 1,100-foot long ship at about a 45-degree angle, another passenger said.

Does it tell us something that only four people had minor injuries?

Initially, the captain plotted a course to avoid the worst of the system, Baumgartner said, and employed the ship's standard storm avoidance system.

The fact that only four people had minor injuries out of 6,000 passengers and 1,500 crew members is a testament to how deftly the captain handled an unexpected weather system.

He has a point, said Brad Lima, a 42-year seafarer and a vice president at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

"You can't underscore how few people were hurt," he said. "Whatever he did, he performed well."

The general public must understand that weather on the sea can shift in a matter of minutes. "I can recall a time at sea when within one hour we were steady and then tossed around like a cork," Lima said. "I'm not sure he could have avoided this."

How are passengers being compensated?

Royal Caribbean issued an apology to passengers for "what they went through" and will refund their fares. Those who were aboard will also get a voucher for 50% of the cruise fare they paid for use on a future cruise, the company said in a tweet.

Is anyone investigating what happened?

Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida is calling for the National Transportation Safety Board to examine why the ship set sail.

"The thing about this storm was that it was forecast for days. So why in the world would a cruise ship with thousands of passengers go sailing right into it?" Nelson asked from the Senate floor Monday. "I want the (NTSB) to come up with answers very quickly and make an admonition to mariners: When the storm is brewing, you don't go out of port."

Declining to not set sail every time a storm is predicted isn't an answer, Lima stressed.

"Ships aren't built to stay in port," he said. "I'm sure the safest position would be not to take the ship to sea, but that's unrealistic when there are pressures of meeting time lines. And, again, weather changes very quickly sometimes."

Lima said the NTSB would make sure all maritime laws were followed. It's the U.S. Coast Guard's job to inspect the ship before the ship leaves port and when it returns, looking for any structural damage.

Internally at Royal Caribbean, the company is reviewing its policies with focus on how to provide more support and oversight when storms are a concern, Baumgartner said. "We've got to figure out a better way to make sure that we don't get surprised by weather, no matter what," he said.

Does it matter that Anthem is flagged in the Bahamas?

The Anthem is a Bahamian-flagged ship in international waters, according to the NTSB. "We are actively engaged with our U.S. and international partners to determine what would be the best course of action, in accordance with established international protocols," the agency said in a statement.

That isn't unusual. Many vessels are flagged in various countries outside the United States but that doesn't mean a substandard requirement for safety or maintenance of a ship, said Lima. There are international standards that must be maintained for all vessels globally.

James Staples, a captain and maritime consultant, said it's critical that the decision on whether to leave port remain with the captain. No one should be judging a captain for the decisions he or she makes, both Staples and Lima said.

Are comparisons with El Faro fair?

There have been some comparisons between Anthem and the El Faro, a cargo ship that sank October 1 near the Bahamas after encountering Hurricane Joaquin. All 33 aboard El Faro died.

Staples and Lima don't see any parallels. El Faro was much older than the Anthem and is structurally a different ship. The El Faro was a cargo ship rather than a passenger ship, meaning that the two had different time lines to deliver and different pressures. They are owned by different companies. "It's easy to play armchair quarterback but I don't see the similarities here," said Staples.